Four forest gardening myths

I’ve learned a lot of things in the course of trying out permaculture and forest gardening. Some of them I’ve then had to unlearn again. Here are my top four forest gardening myths.

Ground covers
Practically every forest gardening book you can find will tell you that you need ground covers: plants whose main function is to cover the soil. They are usually aggressive spreaders like mint and tansy that also attract insects and are said to benefit the garden in some rather intangible way through the aromatic substances they release. Sometimes they can be plants like Rubus pentalobus, a bramble relative that carpets the ground thickly and produces a token yield of small fruits.

I can see where the ground cover idea came from. If you have a large area and are mostly interested in the tree and shrub products, then perhaps all you want from a ground layer plant is that it will outcompete the weeds and save you some work (raising some interesting questions about how you define a ‘weed’). But in a smaller area there is absolutely no point to ground covers: you want to fill the whole ground layer with productive plants and fertility-builders.

In my experience ground covers are completely unnecessary for attracting wildlife: the whole point of a forest garden is that the productive plants get to go through their entire annual cycle of growing and flowering and most of them are excellent wildlife plants in their own right. I am also a firm unbeliever in magic ingredients like aromatics in ecosystems: the only magic ingredient is diversity.

Straight lines are bad
Funky, curvy lines almost seem to be a defining feature and article of faith of permaculture, which is the route by which a lot of people come into forest gardening. However, at the risk of sounding very… well… straight, I have to say that there’s a lot to be said for planting in straight lines. One reason is that it makes hoeing much easier. There isn’t a lot of weeding to be done in a forest garden, but there’s still some, and running a hoe down between rows is by far the easiest way to do it. It also helps you to avoid hoeing down your crop plants. A lot of perennial vegetables die down during winter and it is very disheartening to slice the tops off them just as they should be bursting into new growth. Having them in straight lines helps you remember at least generally where they should be.

Another reason for hoeing is that sometimes you want to thin out your plants, particularly with the self-seeders. I neglected to hoe lines through my leaf beet this year and was rewarded with a patch of scrawny plants that were more interested in producing stem and racing each other for the light than they were in producing fat, juicy leaves for me to eat.

Finally, straight lines make for good access. Mandala beds may look great when they are first laid out, but regrettably a New-York-style grid is probably the best compromise between getting round the garden, getting access to individual beds and not taking up too much space that you can get.

No work
A mature forest garden is often said to be a ‘no-work’ system. If only! However, there is a kernel of truth in this one. There is far, far less work involved in digging and weeding a well-planned forest garden than there is in an annual veg plot. However, there tends to be more work in the harvesting. With annual vegetables you generally lift the whole plant; in a forest garden you pull bits off it, which takes more time.

I would change ‘no work’ to ‘better work’, as I don’t know many people who prefer weeding to harvesting. Perhaps the biggest advantage in work terms is that the the work schedule in a forest garden is much more forgiving. In the veg plot, you generally have to weed those seedlings NOW or you’ll lose them. In the forest garden you can usually leave a task til mañana, or indeed next month, with little harm done.

Bare soil is the devil’s work
A quick walk round any forest should be enough to dispel this one. You certainly want to keep soil disturbance to a minimum and only those who like thankless work would try to maintain areas of bare soil for the sake of it, but there is no need to obsessively try to cover every square inch with ground covers and mulch. Woodchip is for the paths and the paths only and other, more nitrogen-rich mulches are a useful bonus if you can get them – a way of adding fertility to the soil – not a requirement.

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4 thoughts on “Four forest gardening myths

  1. Totally agree – this is exactly what I thought the first time I visited Martin Crawford’s Forest Garden – a great collection of edible bushes and trees, but with more work it could have been so much more…

  2. Hear, hear. One of Permaculture’s biggest failings has been its failure to subject some very seductive ideas to rigorous evaluation. An exuberant (others might call it chaotic) intertwining polyculture can look lovely, but if this hinders efficient harvesting, then a more ordered placement seems to be eminently sensible, no matter that this involves straight lines or other “unnatural” planting patterns.

  3. Thank you for pointing out these myths. Theory is all good and well, but experience such as yours is by far the better.

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